Linda Colling: Nothing is sacred

Heroes: The civic reception for survivors of Sunderland's 125 Anti-Tank Regiment.

Heroes: The civic reception for survivors of Sunderland's 125 Anti-Tank Regiment.

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WHAT kind of people would rip a war memorial from a chapel wall? They are the very scum of the earth, as despicable as the theft.

Now we hear of the two who have admitted selling on the memorial, from Grangetown Cemetery, for a measly £125 for scrap – Anthony Roberts, 18, of Greta Terrace, High Barnes, and John Ferguson, 37, of Athol Road, Hendon. Ferguson has pleaded total ignorance to knowing what it was.

This sickening act highlights what a shift there has been in morality and respect, so much so that nothing is sacrosanct.

The men and women whose names are recorded on the brass memorial “in everlasting memory”, civilians who lost their lives in the bombing of this town in 1939-45, were of a time when no-one would have sunk to such depths to steal so sacred a tribute.

Respect governed their living. Anyone doing such a thing would be shunned for all time, treat as a pariah, beyond the pale. That’s what should be meted out to this pair.

Honour, sacrifice and decent conduct are the qualities that men like Len Gibson, a Japanese prisoner of war, lived their lives by. These two aren’t fit to lick his boots.

Now 91, Len of West Herrington, a man of quality and calibre, despairs and is disgusted at such an outrageous act.

He told me: “It’s unbelievable that any man could do such a thing.

“After all, 70-odd years ago the young men of Sunderland turned up in their hundreds to defend this country so that we could have freedom and peace and many of them died, and we try and keep the memory of those who have died.

“To think there are certain people who would stoop so low as to desecrate the memorial is beyond belief.”

Len is secretary of The Far East Prisoner of War Association and there are only five of his old comrades left. They meet every month.

He was a prisoner of the Japanese for three-and-a-half years, worked on the infamous Burma Railway and on the building of the Murguy Road.

Len was just 19 when he answered the call and was one of 600 local lads who came from the shipyards, building sites, factories, banks and shops to join Sunderland’s own 125 Anti-Tank Regiment, which was captured by the Japanese when Singapore fell in February 1942.

The Sunderland 600 went into the valley in the shadow of death, disease and deprivation. One in three never came back.

All endured hard labour and beatings, a starvation diet and when the clothes rotted off their backs, they wore black loin cloths.

Len vividly remembers his homecoming and the civic reception for survivors of the 125 Anti-Tank Regiment in October 1945: “My memory of that is seeing my father and before I could get to him and shake hands with him, a young woman rushed up to me and put her arms round my neck and I had to look up and say ‘Who is this?’ It was my sister Jenny. We had been away for four years.”

Every Remembrance Sunday Len reads the Far East Prisoner of War prayer at the cenotaph in Burdon Road which he says is “for every day, every month not just in November.”

Looking at the 57 names on the stolen memorial, which the council to its credit has had restored, is a reminder of part of our history which we should never forget.

As Len says: “The Second World War brought war to the people. Because of the bombing people were in the war through the blitz. So they were part of the war effort.”

What would those on the plaque, those who laid down their lives and the many who didn’t return think of this disgusting duo?

I knew Len’s old comrade in arms Jim Sneddon, a hugely-respected police sergeant in Sunderland, and know what he would wish if he were still here today, to have had the privilege of feeling their collar.